On Saturday morning, as I was preparing to head to our basement to use the stationary bike, I smelled something. My first thought was that the plant in the front hall might have been over-watered and was decaying. Do you know that smell when cut flowers have been in a vase too long without a water change? No? Lucky you. The smell is so repellent that it’s almost enough to make you swear off bouquets forever—or, like me, become a water-changing fanatic. Anyway, the potted plant was not guilty.
Next, I opened the basement door and saw something no one ever welcomes on the floors of their homes—running water, ankle-high. Calling to my husband to get the wet/dry vac, I rushed downstairs only to make the second disgusting discovery: This water had raw sewage in it. The source was the drain under the water heater. It just kept coming and coming, a great gusher of awfulness.
And so the frantic phone calls began. We called the sewer emergency line for Arlington County. We called ServPro. We called plumbers. We called the insurance company. The county said they’d send a crew.
I ran to my neighbors to warn them. One was just pulling into her driveway. When I blurted out the crisis, she froze. “You might want to check your basement!” I repeated, confused at her stare. “I know,” she said “but I’m terrified.” Her basement had not been spared.
After what felt like 16 hours (it was probably about 50 minutes), a truck arrived on scene and began the desultory process of picking up manhole covers block by block, searching for the source of the trouble.
Meanwhile, our basement had become one huge latrine. The sewage, now 5 or 6 inches deep, watery and brown, was swirling around the sofa, the ottoman (did I mention it was a finished basement?), the bedskirt, the rugs, the bookcases, the dog beds, and the contents of the closets, and flowing out the back door. It was also surging out of the toilets. The smell was nauseating.
After 45 minutes of attempting to snake out the sewer, the technicians said they couldn’t find the problem. We called their supervisor and pleaded for reinforcements. Eventually, an even bigger truck with more technicians arrived and finally found a way to make it stop.
Then the angels from ServPro arrived and began the revolting work of cleaning up the mess. They did so with the utmost courtesy and diligence. They didn’t complain. They didn’t make jokes, thankfully. We were not ready for jokes. Still not, honestly.
We had to spend that night in a hotel and rush back at first light to take care of the pets. On Monday, the Arlington County sewer authority came back and said they were sending a camera down the pipes just to make sure everything was fine. For two days we cleaned and phoned and dealt with failing systems. What was that alarm? The sump pump? The hot water heater? The furnace? What could be saved? What was lost? Family pictures? The ServPro technicians, having cleaned the floors and walls, sprayed disinfectant everywhere. The smell slowly subsided. We slept in our bed on Monday night with every window in the house wide open.
And then came Tuesday. Going down to check on the dehumidifiers and fans, I saw and smelled it again. The sludge. The running water. It was back.
As I write, we still have no idea whether the county has found the source of the problem. The flow has stopped and ServPro is cleaning . . . again. And while I am agitated and upset, I am also grateful for the professional way the insurance company, the ServPro people, and others have handled the emergency. My family has rallied round (I’m working on this column at my son’s house now), my colleagues have offered us their beach houses, spare rooms, etc.
Of course, the Twitter jackasses were heard from as well. In the panic Saturday morning, when I couldn’t get hold of anyone for a while, I tweeted about our emergency on the off chance that someone in authority in Arlington might see it. Couldn’t hurt, right? But of course some respondents, in the spirit of the age, let fly with jeers and abuse. “God might have sent it in response to your endorsing candidacies of communists,” said one. “Karma is a bitch eh? Pretend its what used to be your political values getting revenge for your embrace of Democrats,” said another.
For the record, most of the comments were sympathetic, but Twitter is its own kind of sewer. The anonymity mixed with the hyperpolarized climate encourages the worst in people. I understand much of what drives conservatives crazy about the left—the language police, the constant attribution of racism and xenophobia to opponents, and the uncritical embrace of fads in the name of inclusion, among other things. But what I’m still struggling to understand, and frankly doubt I will ever really comprehend, is the right’s abandonment of simple decency. Do you remember during the 2020 campaign when Donald Trump’s brother died? Joe Biden released a statement: “Mr. President, Jill and I are sad to learn of your younger brother Robert’s passing. I know the tremendous pain of losing a loved one—and I know how important family is in moments like these. I hope you know that our prayers are with you all.”
Until just a short time ago, that kind of thing would have been utterly unremarkable, one of the thousands of courtesies we extend in a civilized society. But in 2020, after five years of vertiginous descent into coarseness and venom, it seemed like a grace note. I remain mystified that, even if you listen to partisan TV all day long and patronize fact-optional websites, you can discard basic human decency like yesterday’s fashion.
I sense that people’s anger makes them feel alive and gives them a much-needed sense of community. If you hate together, you’re at least together, right? People are too damn atomized. America’s families have been in decline for decades, which has weakened communities, and localism generally. The internet has further isolated us, freeing our ids while starving our hearts.
I don’t know where this is all headed. Yes, I mean the house, but also the country. We’re in the s*** now. Let’s hope there’s a way out.